By Bob Perfect, Editor - Durban is Yours
While Pokémon Go is yet to be officially released in South Africa, it’s still taken the country by storm with everyone under the age of 30, from your little cousin to the bullies who picked on Pokémon nerds in school, using one of the many work-arounds to download the game on their phones. If you see a group of millennials outside a church, next to a statue, or in a park, frantically swiping at their phones, they’re probably playing Pokémon Go. Ironically, the same churches that proclaimed that Pokémon are evil nearly 2 decades ago are now venues of fierce Pokémon battles, thanks to Niantic’s latest augmented reality offering. The game sees the player scouring the real world for cute, but fierce, imaginary creatures and then forcing them to fight each other for the glory of their masters. This has seen teens and adults (kind of, 20-somethings aren’t really adults) actually getting out the house and exploring their neighbourhoods and cities in pursuit of being the very best, like no one ever was.
Pokémon Go-ing outside
Pokémon Go is getting young people out of their houses and socialising, whether it’s on the beach, at botanical gardens, in local music venues or even at the local library. Sure, these may seem like obvious things that young people should be doing, but not everyone is a “cool kid” who lives an active life with well developed social circles, many younger people live their lives through computer screens or suffer from depression and anxiety. Finding motivation to leave the house can be incredibly difficult for those with mental health issues and as silly as it may seem, Pokémon Go has given countless people that motivation. Pokémon Go is getting those people out the house and has bonafide mental health benefits according to this engadget article (and Nursing Times, and Psych Central). Exercise and socialising are good for your mental health, and Pokémon Go encourages both, by making you join a team and giving you in-game rewards for walking from place to place.
While the game does have you looking down at your phone a lot, when you look up, there’s often a pleasant view. More people have been to the KZNSA Gallery in the past 2 weeks than they have in months, all because it’s a Pokémon Gym. I’ve also been taken to a healthy dose of graffiti spots and public art projects, which are way more impressive when you’re not just driving past them. Pokémon Go was built on Niantic’s previous AR game, Ingress, and many of the Pokéstops and Pokémon Gyms were actually geolocated by Ingress players. These user compiled POIs complement the historical and other noteworthy locations that Niantic compiled using Google Maps data, and make the game feel more localised. That fact that the game tells me XS is a “lighty jol” or takes me to Pastel Heart’s various artworks gives the game a human touch. Developers can learn a lot from Niantic’s use of their communities to populate content over algorithms.
Bringing players to the yard
Having your property or business be a Pokéstop or Pokémon Gym will attract people, regardless of whether or not you want them there. While there have been many “get these damn kids off my lawn” type posts online, smart businesses that are Pokéstops have been drawing in customers by dropping “lures”, which are an in-game way to attract Pokémon, which in turn attracts real world Pokémon trainers. Other businesses have offered trainers discounts according to their trainer level, or if they catch a Pokémon on their premises and post it online. Whilst some have found ways to profit from the game, others have used it to help others, like dropping lures at hospitals so those bedbound by illness and injury can join in the fun. Businesses and hospitals aren’t the only ones take advantage of Pokémon Go’s lures, criminals overseas have used them to bring victims right to them with their phones brightly lighting their unsuspecting faces. Although I haven’t seen any negative Pokémon Go news stories in SA yet, they’re inevitable as the game grows in popularity. It’s dangerous business walking out your front door and while the game does caution players to stay aware of their surroundings, if an Alakazam pops up on my Pokémon radar that’s all I’m focussing on until it’s in my squad. You’re likely to hear reports of Pokémon Go players being mugged, but if players use their common sense and stick to well populated, brightly lit areas, they should have a fun and safe experience whilst annoying all the ballies around them. Still, for those who want to venture off into the great unknown, they’re probably going to need a mobile panic button at the very least. Who knows, we could get our own Pokémon drivers and bodyguards for those trainers who don’t want to brave the streets on their own.
There’s barriers to entry with games needing to be played on an Android or iOS device and requiring data to play, although it’s surprisingly not data intensive. If local service providers follow T-mobile’s example and give customers free data for Pokémon Go, they could earn a lot of goodwill with their current subscribers and potentially draw new customers. More SA cities are rolling out free Wi-Fi in various suburbs which already attracts students, freelancers and entrepreneurs who don’t rent office space, but could now see an influx of Pokémon Trainers with free Wi-Fi and well placed lures. This university in America placed a solar powered charging station in the optimal place to play Pokémon, with South Africa being a prime spot for solar power, local versions could help a lot more than just Pokémon Go players. There are also South African cellphone manufacturers like Mint Mobile producing affordable Android phones and tablets with GPS capabilities so that barrier to entry is slightly lessened. With the exchange rate getting worse every time a politician opens their mouth, affordable locally produced cellphones will likely see an increase in their market share if they can prove to consumers they’re quality products.
The Pokémon economy
The economy around the game is still being built and the game itself is just another step in the augmented reality world. How people try to benefit from it and build on it will be interesting. While some might take a route that caters to the Pokémon Go players need, like making branded powerbanks and clothing that shows a team’s colours, others might take inspiration from the app and develop their own. Pick ‘n Pay supermarket have launched their own “Super Animals” app which utilises AR to bring collectable animals to life. That they came out with it just 4 days after Pokémon Go launched is either incredible planning or dumb luck, either way, it’s well timed.
The future of "catching 'em all" tech
Bringing cartoon creatures to life is one of the more gimmicky ways to use AR and will be played out soon as there will likely be countless copy cats, but using geolocation and augmented reality to draw people where you want them has only really just begun. There are a number of noteworthy South African travel apps that are useful, but one which makes a game of visiting multiple places and offer discounts and freebies for playing, could get more people exploring the world around them. Yelp’s nifty Augmented Reality Monocle, which shows you all the points of interest in your area and directs you to them, has been around since 2009, but still isn’t available in South Africa. A localised version of the app could help many locals and tourists find places that they’d never have found on their own. Currently, augmented reality in South Africa seems gimmicky and aimed more at the advertising and real estate worlds. Making pictures come to life like it’s Harry Potter might be fun and exciting for a while, but it’s only scratching the surface of what can be done with AR and geolaction. Pokémon Go may just be a game, but it’s the first to have such a massive real world impact and has helped set the stage for AR to come. There are many lessons to be learnt and ideas to be spawned from PoGo, and I’m curious to see the effect it has on South Africa over time. It’s still very much early days with the game not even officially out yet, but the augmented reality seeds have been sown. What those seeds grow into, time will tell.
About Bob Perfect:
Bob Perfect is the editor of Durban Is Yours and typically goes on about music and youth culture in South Africa for the likes of Noisey, We Are Pulse and Platform. He hates long walks on the beach but that's where the best Pokémon are.
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